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22. Sunday after Pentecost (the Lesser Festival of Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles), 10/28/2012

Sermon on Jeremiah 26:1-16, by Frank C. Senn


A note to preachers and pastors: My suggestion is that you observe both the apostles' day and Reformation Day, using the readings from the Lesser Festival of Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles. Liturgically this is proper, since the real date of Reformation Day is October 31. The following sermon may guide you in ordering the service.

Today's date in the church year calendar is really the lesser festival of Saints Simon and Jude, two of the lesser known of the twelve apostles of Jesus, on whose collective witness to the risen Christ the faith of the church is built. We would normally ignore this lesser festival if, as this year, it fell on the Sunday before October 31, since we observe this as Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day, as those of you who have celebrated it all your lives know, commemorates the day on which Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, the Eve of All Saints. The timing of October 31 to November 1 is important. Luther's Theses were in protest against the sale of indulgences. But by implication the Theses called into question all indulgences, including those that would be granted to those who venerated the extensive collection of relics of the saints amassed by Luther's pious prince, Frederick the Wise, and house in All Saints' Castle Church in Wittenberg. People would be coming from all over on All Saints' Day to venerate those relics and earn their indulgences. They would see Luther's broadside nailed on the door of the Castle Church. Some folks might have been able to read them, since they were written in Latin.

We take that dramatic event on October 31, 1517 as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And that's what our calendar would have us celebrate, with all its inmplications for the reform of church and society and the ordering of Christian life under God's grace alone through faith alone.

But the earliest Reformation celebrations were occasioned by the official beginning of the Reformation in various cities and lands in Germany, with the reformers themselves often preaching. On Pentecost, May 25, 1539, the Reformation would begin in Leipzig, the city where twenty years earlier Luther had debated Johannes Eck. The city was the seat of the university that had opposed the Wittenberg reformers. That afternoon, Martin Luther preached in the St. Thomas Church; other reformers preached in the other churches of Leipzig at the morning services. We don't have Luther's sermon from the famous Thomaskirche, but we do have the sermon he preached the day before, on the Eve of Pentecost, in a crowded chapel in the presence of Duke Henry of Saxony, who had recently succeeded Duke George, who had bitterly opposed the Reformation. Luther was ill, and even seems to have cut short his sermon. But he felt it was important for him to be there to claim this victory-in his eyes a victory for the gospel of Christ. The text for that sermon was the gospel we have for the Day of Simon and Jude. I figured that if that text was a suitable Reformation text for Luther, it should be suitable for us.

Luther focused on verse 23 of John 14, "Those who love me will keep my word." This was in response to the question of Jude, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?" As he often did in his sermons, Luther elaborated on the speeches of the biblical figures. So he had Jesus responding to Jude, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and I will be with him along with my Father and the Holy Spirit, and make our home with him. This home is God's dwelling, as Jerusalem was called the dwelling of God, which he himself chose as his own: Here is my hearth, my house and dwelling [Isaiah 31:9]; just as today the churches are called God's dwelling on account of the Word and sacraments. Here I think that Christ is pronouncing a severe judgment, here he is prophesying and forgetting the dwelling of Jerusalem, of which all the prophets said: Here will I dwell forever. This dwelling the Lord Christ pulls down and erects and builds a new dwelling, a new Jerusalem, not made of stones and wood, but rather: If a man love me and keeps my Word, there shall be my castle, my chamber, my dwelling."

"What is the dissension about between the papists and us?" asks Luther. "The answer is: about the true Christian church." Yes, that was the issue when the Reformation was enacted into law in cities and lands. It created a schism with the Roman Church. That is the downside of the Reformation, what Jaroslav Pelikan long ago called its "tragic necessity." The tragedy of schism should keep us from becoming too triumphalistic in our celebrations. The first letter of John, our other reading today, was written in a situation of schism. It was another "tragic necessity" caused by the presence of false prophets and alien spirits in the church. Church structure, including our current denominations, are no guarantee that a "right spirit" of doctrine and love is being maintained.

So how does one discern a "true church?" In the Leipzig sermon as well as in his treatise On the Councils and the Church, written in the same year (1539), Luther gives a practical answer. He says that the true Church is not necessarily found in Rome or in Wittenberg. It is found where the word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. In fact, in the treatise On the Councils Luther identifies seven external marks by which Christians can tell where the true church is: the public preaching of the word, the public administration of Holy Baptism; the sacrament of the altar; the office of the keys (confession and absolution) publicly administered; the ordination and calling of ministers; public prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; and the possession of the cross-not the sign but suffering for the faith.

But the word of God is above all things. When the church has been built, says Luther, "the Word must certainly be there, and a Christian should listen to nothing but God's Word. Elsewhere, in worldly affairs, he hears other things, how the wicked should be punished and the good protected, and about the economy. But here in the Christian church it should be a house in which only the Word of God resounds. Therefore let them shriek themselves crazy with their cry: church, church! Without the Word of God it is nothing."

Luther has been compared with Jeremiah, who was called to preach a word that Judah, especially its priestly leaders, didn't want to hear. It was a word of doom. If Judah didn't heed the word of the Lord and return in faithfulness to the covenant, Judah would fall like the northern kingdom of Israel did. Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon was waiting in the wings to unwittingly execute the Lord's punishment on his faithless people. The priests and prophets-all the religious leaders-said that Jeremiah deserved death for proclaiming such a thing. But the officers of the people spared Jeremiah, just on the chance that he might be speaking the true word of the Lord, just as Luther was protected by the prince whose relic collection he questioned.

Luther, like Jeremiah, was spared and the reformers descended on Leipzig on Pentecost 1539 to give thanks that the Reformation was being implemented in that city and in ducal Saxony, and to let the word of God resound from all the pulpits. We, too, on this festival day raise a song of thanksgiving that the word continues to be preached and the sacraments celebrated among us. But we must know, just as the reformers knew, that this should not be taken for granted. We give thanks not for Lutheranism or its denominational expressions, since they too can be challenged by the word, but for the word and the sacraments through which the Holy Spirit keeps us in God's grace, guides us when perplexed, and frees from all harm in this world and the next. Amen.


The Rev. Dr. Frank C. Senn
Evanston, IL
E-Mail: fcsenn@sbcglobal.net